As I look out of the window, damp grey clouds hang heavily in the valley, the top of the escarpment shrouded in mist. A few black crows peck in desultory fashion in the sheepless field. It certainly looks raw and grim out there in the fading November light.
I'm in no-man's land - caught between Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day - and my thoughts are on the military. Not the larger entity, no - just the individuals and their immediate band of comrades and mates. The people they do their job with, the people they are far from home with, the people with which they laugh, cry and die.
This time last year, the three remaining British survivors of World War 1 were, remarkably, still alive: Harry Patch, Henry Allingham and William Stone. I watched them at the televised memorial service and I was deeply moved by these once strong, brave men. Great age had taken its toll, inevitably, but their strength of spirit still shone through their eyes. The emotion in their own faces was powerful as wreaths were laid on their behalf. I wondered where their thoughts were, what images they were conjuring up in their mind's eye. The good, the bad and the ugly. Friends lost, friends found.
Until he hit 100 years of age, Harry Patch, a character and a half, had dismissed the Remembrance services and ceremonies as 'just show business' and had never bothered with any of it. He'd lived his war. He knew what he'd seen, what he'd done and what others all around him had sacrificed too. It was only when he became one of very few First World War Veterans still on the planet that he finally agreed to take part in the acts of remembrance, television documentaries and the like. I think he took to it rather well in the end.
When I was younger I don't think I took the whole thing on board like I do now. With age and maturity you start to understand its significance, even as the years take it further into the mists of time. You better understand about loss, loneliness, the futility of war, the vagaries of politics and politicians and power-crazed individuals. You understand, too, how strong the human spirit can be, against all odds.
So is Remembrance Day 'just show business?' I don't think so. Not for me, at least. I think it is vitally important that, in an age of increasing superficiality and excess, where individualism reigns over collectivism, it is important to stop, look and listen. What have we become? What did all these soldiers, seamen and pilots lose their lives for? Why did so many innocent people have to die and be persecuted and tortured? Was it for the greater good or the long term stability of the world? If you look at Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other conflicts the world has seen since 1945, then the answers to these questions do not look good. If you reflect on the nature of society today, it does not look good either.
For me, the two minute silence is a precious 120 seconds when, for the majority at least, we are forced to stop. A fleeting calm descends around us and, briefly, we have an inkling of a world at peace, a world at one with itself. The power of a collective act, the paying of respects to our fellow human beings and that moment to pause, and think, and be still, in an ever spinning world, is a remarkable thing. And even if it comes but once a year, it is better than nothing at all.
11th November 2009
On Sunday I found myself, once more, at the Remembrance Day parade in our local town. For once the sun was shining, the air was still and thus the march up the High Street of local Brownie, Guide, Scout and Army Cadet packs, led by the town band, took on a more upbeat air than is often the case. For once we were not hunched and pinched against driving winds and rain, uniforms shrouded in a hotchpotch of raincoats. A car was parked in front of the memorial on the market place. The police got on their radios and set about moving it. Some people, I don't know, just lost in their own little worlds...
We all filed into the church - a beautiful one, just plain and simple, stone and wood, but full of history - and settled into the wooden stall pews. The booklet to accompany the service, 'Lest We Forget', is a compelling read, full of facts and information concerning Ypres and the Menin Gate, the Enigma Code, the Battles of Jutland and Kohima, and the Dambusters, together with background information on the writers of the hymns and an explanation of the Last Post and Reveille and the Flame of Hope. The whole booklet is also dotted with poems and quotes and, in short, it really makes you think.
E was carrying the Standard for the Brownies which she bore up the High Street and then down the aisle of the church to just in front of the altar. Others did likewise. From where I was sitting I could see her in the choir stalls and I was wondering how much of all we were singing and listening to really made any sense to her. But she was there. She was taking part. With time she would better understand. And so would her sisters. The vicar gave his sermon and pointed out that the Book of Remembrance, with the passing away of Harry, Henry and William, was, in a way, now closed. Yet the case it rests in remains open as the wars still have not ceased...
I became choked, as ever, when, just before the Last Post was called, they read out those staggeringly simple and poignant words:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
I thought of those marvellous old men who had just died at such a great age, having seen so much and given so much to a country that they must have barely recognised as theirs by the end; and I thought of the young men who are still losing their lives in Afghanistan and in other spots around the globe and all the loved ones that are left behind.
By the time we left the church again a slightly chill wind had blown up but a pale November sun was still shining. We went to the memorial where we did the usual wreath laying ceremony and E did her stuff with the flag, solemn faced. Another two minute silence ensued, broken by the harsh trill of a mobile phone followed by a voice echoing around the cobbles in a stage whisper 'Oh hi Sally! We're just up in the market place doing the minute's silence'. Well, we were. Not any more. The woman concerned, oblivious to the crassness of her conversation at such a moment, exited stage right, hunched over her phone, believing no-one could hear her as she warbled on about arrangements for dinner. My, oh my.
Today, Armistice Day, the eleventh of the eleventh, I was in a yoga class. We sat still for two minutes in a suitably yogic, meditative, still position and I was pleased. I had feared we would not, and had planned a loo break for myself to observe the ritual. G and L had their two minute silence in Assembly. E was at her swimming lesson, but they still all got out of the pool and stood there shivering in silence.
Many a brave but lost soul has shivered alone in rain-soaked trenches or snow-strewn forests in dead of night with nothing but Fear, Faith or Fate to keep them company. To me, this also is the importance of the two minute silence. It is the least we can do. To remember.
Suicide in the Trenches
(published in the Cambridge Magazine, 23 February 1918)
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Please read this tribute to Harry Patch - it is well worth reading and puts some of what I've been trying to say in a proper context.